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Analysis & Opinion
16.02.11 From The Urals To The Kurils
By Andrew Roth

For the past several weeks, a steady stream of tense rhetoric over the remote South Kuril Islands has put Russian-Japanese relations on center stage in Russia’s mainstream media. Last week Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan called President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to the islands last November an “unforgiveable offense,” and Japanese protestors in Tokyo publicly desecrated a Russian flag. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that any treaty between Japan and Russia bringing an end to World War II would have to wait until the Japanese recognize Russian control of the islands, while Medvedev, who ordered an increased Russian military presence on the islands, stated unequivocally that “everyone must understand that the South Kuril Islands are Russian territory.”

Despite the diplomatic row, some experts argue that there have been modest signs that the Russian side is willing to look past the recent statements by Kan in order to continue talks with the Japanese. The fact that last week’s meetings between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara were able to take place was an important step, said Valeri Kistanov, head of the Institute for Japanese Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Perhaps another country would have taken the political step to postpone the visit of the foreign minister, but Russia accepted meeting the minister and speaking to him. I think that this is a signal that we are ready to talk with Japan despite our difficulties.”

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While the talks produced an agreement between the two sides to form a roundtable meeting of business leaders on future energy projects, they failed to provide breakthrough agreements on the issue of control over the islands. A Russian proposal to form a joint commission to consider historical claims over the islands was turned down, and after the meeting Maehara said “we could not bridge our differences,” AFP reported.

Other analysts noted that the basic territorial claims over the islands are an intractable disagreement, and periodic flare-ups between Moscow and Tokyo are unavoidable. “I think that discussion has hit a dead end,” said Leonid Mlechin, a well-known Russian journalist and television host. “There’s no solution to the problem of the islands. Such issues periodically will become aggravated, and then quiet down, and there’s really nothing to be done about it. In principle, Japan proposed that Russia realize the terms of the joint declaration of 1956 and asked for two of the islands to be transferred. Now the Japanese are insisting on the transfer of four islands. It’s not possible and that’s the end of it.”

Despite their remote location, the South Kuril Islands hold significance as a business interest for their deposits for both oil and gas. Yet there is an important subtext to the recent disputes, involving both Moscow’s wider policy aims and Japanese internal politics. For Russia, the development of the Kurils is part of a larger policy of expanding its presence in East Asia. In Japan, the Democratic Party, which won the elections for the first time since its founding in 1998, many see a dispute over the Kurils as a way to divert the attention of its disenchanted electorate at home. “For the last year and a half the Democratic Party in Japan has achieved almost nothing in terms of the economy and social spheres,” said Kistanov. “They haven’t fulfilled the promises they made when they won the elections. For those reasons they needed to score some political points, and a hitch in relations with Russia presented itself as an opportunity to win a round and forget about everything else.” The Japanese prime minister’s favorable ratings hit a new low this week at 20 percent, Reuters reported Saturday.

Local Russian media has also played an important role in hyping up the significance of the disputes over the last several weeks, as aggressive quotes and sound bites from both sides have been replayed for days on end. “It’s being exaggerated to a certain point. This is such a simple and understandable topic when you can take a full swing at the enemy, at Japan. There aren’t many topics where you can express yourself so sharply, and naturally nobody in the media is giving up the chance to show how patriotic they are,” said Mlechin.

Despite the difficult relations between Moscow and Tokyo right now, however, the possibility of any misunderstandings leading to real conflict is extremely unlikely, the analysts said. Asked about reports that surfaced on Wednesday in the Japanese media that a fishing boat was fired upon by a Russian Coast Guard ship, both noted that the problem of Japanese fishing boats roving into Russian waters is actually far from unusual in the region.
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